Lugar questions use of FAS instead of USAID
WASHINGTON -- A conflict over the priorities of the Agriculture Department's Foreign Agricultural Service has made Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appear to be a stronger defender of the agency's traditional export promotion work than Agricult...
WASHINGTON -- A conflict over the priorities of the Agriculture Department's Foreign Agricultural Service has made Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appear to be a stronger defender of the agency's traditional export promotion work than Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Earlier this year, Vilsack asked Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to send FAS $170 million over two years to be used for agricultural development in Afghanistan. Neither Clinton nor Gates responded to those requests, but FAS has become increasingly immersed in the development of Afghan agriculture
FAS is run by Michael Michener, an Iowa native who worked at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development before being appointed to his position by Vilsack. Michener also worked as a foreign affairs adviser on Vilsack's presidential campaign.
On Sept. 23, Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., wrote Clinton and Vilsack, asking them to explain why the administration is using USDA's FAS rather than USAID to manage agricultural development efforts in Afghanistan. Lugar said that using FAS rather than USAID makes it difficult for him to convince Congress to give USAID more resources and also raises questions about whether FAS is being diverted from its mandates to analyze foreign production, promote U.S. agricultural exports and help U.S. farmers with trade issues. Agweek has obtained copies of Lugar's letter and Clinton's and Vilsack's responses.
In a response dated Oct. 5, Clinton wrote that the Obama administration has a "one government approach" to efforts in Afghanistan and appreciates USDA's expertise. But Clinton, who is playing an unusually large role in managing USAID because no administrator has been nominated, also said that she is "fully committed to rebuilding USAID as the U.S. government's lead for international development." She also said USAID is in the process of hiring 300 new Foreign Service officers including agricultural development specialists.
"I can assure you that I will not support any expansion of USDA's international development function beyond Afghanistan without full engagement with the Congress first," Clinton wrote. "We fully share your concern that FAS' capacity to fulfill its primary mission to represent and promote U.S. farmers and exporters overseas not be hindered or diminished in any way as USDA engages in supporting U.S. objectives in Afghanistan" she added.
Vilsack, in a response dated Oct. 6, said USDA's efforts in Afghanistan are part of President Obama's "integrated, civilian-military counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan" and that USDA has promised the State Department that, by January, it will send 64 agriculture experts recruited from within the agency, state departments of agriculture and land grant universities to Afghanistan. Noting that USDA and other agencies face "important implementation decisions" on Clinton's global food security initiative, Vilsack also promised to consult with relevant congressional committees. Vilsack did not, however, address Lugar's concerns about FAS's ability to fulfill its traditional roles while becoming so involved in international development.
Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Lugar who has worked for him since he was Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, said Lugar had received both responses and was reassured by Clinton's commitment to a strong USAID. Fisher said Lugar understands that USDA employees from many divisions may provide technical expertise needed in Afghanistan and other places, but thinks USAID, not FAS, should be in charge of the mission. FAS employees who are questioning the agency's direction have noted that FAS officers who have been recruited for their analytical and export promotion capabilities do not have the technical expertise needed in Afghanistan and have only the same ability to coordinate and recruit experts that USAID should have.
One FAS employee said that Lugar sent his letter a day after a difficult meeting between FAS and Lugar staff and that it has become known within the agency as the "smack down letter." FAS officers, the employee said, have noted that Clinton, who worked hard to increase FAS programs to promote the sale of fruits and vegetables when she was a senator from New York, defended the agency's primary role more strongly than Vilsack.